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Chico Mendes

23 Dec

A little while ago I heard from a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in about 20 years. He happened to send me an instant message on Facebook while I just happened to be online myself – Facebook is funny that way.

My friend, Gomercindo Rodriguez, was typing on his keyboard from Acre state in Brazil, just near the border with Bolivia, and I was in Ontario, Canada, trying to dredge up my long-unused Portuguese (battling autocorrect the whole time) on my iPad. But ever since then, we have been Facebook, and not just historical, friends. And yesterday he posted about an event that affected both us tremendously.

I’m talking about the shooting death of Francisco ‘Chico’ Mendes exactly 28 years ago.

I learned about it at a Christmas party, from someone who had heard it earlier that morning on CBC radio. Gomercindo was the first person to arrive at Chico’s tiny wooden shack in the town of Xapuri after his wife, who was home at the time with their two small children, raised the alarm.

A rancher named Darli Alves had sent his son, Darci, with a shotgun to murder Chico Mendes when he stepped out of his house, and the news went around the world. But for each of us personally, Chico’s death was shocking, horrific, deeply saddening and impossible to accept. It also, I believe, had an effect on us that in some way made its mark on both of our lives.

For me, the thing about Chico is that he was a truly nice person, kind and empathetic, generous and determined to change the world for the better without being authoritarian or arrogant about it.

Changing the world, above all the world of impoverished and disenfranchised forest dwellers, by changing the way we understood the environment around us, was like a normal, even unremarkable goal for Chico. It was just something that needed to be done, something logical and sensible and fair. Actually – let me highlight the fair. Thousands of families earned their living by extracting the natural products of the rainforest, and at the same time, the forest was a global resource that belonged to all of humanity. Destroying it to produce meat was an injustice. And that fight for what was fair, what was right for all of us, cost him his life.

Chico’s death – and the lackadaisical judicial response to it – bothered me for years. It seemed to symbolize the powerlessness of the average person, and the way people with money and influence but no ethics can so easily ride roughshod over our collective rights like an out-of-control steamroller. It could almost have made a person turn cynical and bitter.

But the legacy of Chico Mendes’s life and ideas also had its influence (and not just because Google featured him on its search page recently).


In the case of Gomercindo Rodriguez, it led to him becoming a lawyer. One of his first, most significant cases involved the defence and eventual liberation of three young men falsely accused of rape in order to protect the real culprit, the son of a local mayor.

For me, it made me increasingly curious about the way poor and disenfranchised people are actually coming up with collective, positive solutions to powerlessness, all the time. It got me looking at the way this happens, and for more examples of people doing this. It’s what made me write Broke but Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and their Radical Solutions to Poverty, and, looking at it another way, looking at the essential problem of top-down, First World aid, The Anatomy of Giving.

Yesterday, on the 28th anniversary of the murder of this kind man who was our friend, Gomercindo emphasized the fact that Chico Mendes is still alive because his ideas are still among us and are gaining strength. There are now protected Extractive Reserves throughout the Amazon. The fact that burning rainforest is a big part of the potential destruction of the entire planet is common currency. Most of all, though, the notion that people with few resources can come together and fight against what’s wrong and win – that too is more true than ever.

Chico Mendes would have been 72 years old now, if he hadn’t been murdered. None of us can say what he would be like. But I tend to think that the years wouldn’t have changed him much. After every and any victory for forest dwellers and for the forest itself he always thought about the next step. He would always say ‘the struggle continues.’


Sebastião Salgado’s Photographic Call to Arms

14 May

The Natural History Museum in London is currently showing a large collection of photographs by a man who is by any account one of the world’s greatest photographers–and one of my favourites.


The first photo of his I ever saw is probably his most famous: tens of thousands of men, covered with mud and straining under the weight of their tumplines, as they worked the Serra Pelada gold mine in Para, Brazil. It is an arresting, apocalyptic image that hardly seems real, yet that portrayed an undeniable reality of life for the poor of Brazil in the 1980s.  I once met a man who had worked Serra Pelada — some 100,000 worked there at its peak — who told me that what they were doing was going ever further down into the earth, filling sacks, then carrying them up to be upended into a sluice that captured its flakes and nuggets of gold. They were paid for every sack they brought up, depending on how much gold was extracted. In his case, it was enough to buy some land on a fertile island in the Tocantins River.

Yesterday I learned in a lecture that Salgado, who born in Aimorés in the state of Minas Gerais, actually first came to fame with a photo of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan while he worked for Magnum. But I know him better for all of the work that followed, like Migrations and Workers, as well as his vital support for the Landless Rural Workers Movement, its struggles and victories also portrayed in a book he published called Terra, or Land.

It was Terra, in fact, that caught the attention of his biographer, Parvati Nair, who delivered yesterday’s lecture, and who saw connections in it that evoked her home, India. She not only spoke about his working methods and personal history, including years in exile here in London during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but also about some interesting aspects of his personal life.

Salgado and his wife Lelia Wanick now live on the same farming estate where he grew up, and have been purchasing land to replant with trees. According to Ms. Nair, they have planted some two million trees, setting in motion the regeneration of hundreds of hectares of tropical forest and return of all kinds of wildlife.

A legacy as important as his photographic work? That’s a difficult question to answer. But in crossing the lines of art, environment, economics and modernity, Salgado’s opus stands out for the way it opens up vistas to a natural world both tremendous in its forms and extension yet under constant threat from human beings. In fact, the images of the few human beings who live in some of these vast and often inhospitable expanses are at times all but  indistinguishable from those of the trees and animals and even the extraordinary rock, ice and water formations that make his photographs such compelling works of art and documentation. So that now it are tumbling multitudes of penguins strewn across an apocalyptic rock face rather than people that stop us and make us wonder what we are seeing.

salgado lizard

The exhibit of photographs at the Natural History Museum  takes us throughout a world that remains untouched, in large part because these spaces are so remote, and constitute, in Salgado’s own words, “a call to arms for us to preserve what we have.”

For me, his devotion to chasing unforgettable images that make us re-think both our natural world and human society, on the one hand, and his quiet support for people engaged in the struggle for a more equitable and environmentally sustainable social order, on the other, are undistinguishable. They feed into each other and make Salgado a photographer — and a person —  truly unique and admirable. In fact, it was the experience of seeing the landscape around Aimorés come back to life that inspired Salgado to begin working on Genesis.

Check out Salgado’s official website, here, and Ms. Nair’s book, A Different Light: the Photography of Sebastião Salgado, here.

Losing our Experimental Lakes

19 Mar
Photo:J. Tyler Bell

Photo:J. Tyler Bell

The closing of the famous Experimental Lake Area research station in northern Ontario was announced almost a year ago,  and its dismantling is apparently already underway.

As is a way of thinking that holds that a clean environment is something worth preserving.

Just imagine this amazing piece of nature — 58 lakes surrounded by forest, where for the past 45 years scientists have made the kinds of discoveries that enhance the value of our freshwater resources — and compare it to the simultaneously smug yet boring features of Tory government ministers and their obsession with the Alberta tar sands.

It makes a picture that, in many ways, illustrates only too clearly the frightening prejudices of our small-minded prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his acolytes — as well as the sharp sense of frustration the more than 60 per cent of us who didn’t vote for them must be feeling.

It was the evidence amassed by ELA scientists that stopped the use of phosphates in detergents and fertilizers. Studies there also made an open-and-shut case against the sulphur oxide pollution from the south that caused acid rain.  As Andrew Nikiforuk, one of Canada’s best environmental journalists, put it in an article last year, “The project not only broadened the world’s horizons on water with more than 750 peer reviewed studies and 120 graduate theses, but provided hard data on the impact of industrial activities on the world’s most critical resource.”

What’s more, the costs of this useful scientific activity were not particularly high — especially when compared to the amounts the Harper government wants to spend on fighter jets, or already spends on the emoluments of our idle and self-congratulatory senators.

And worse, its loss — described by one foreign scientist in Nikiforuk’s article as “the kind of act one expects from the Taliban in Afghanistan, not from the government of a civilized and educated nation” — is only one measure in the Tories’ quest to eviscerate the environmental protections previously afforded to land, air, lakes and rivers throughout Canada.

The Tory government has also taken away funding of the Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Research Station, axed the seven-person team of smokestack specialists that worked with both enforcement officers and industry to stop air pollution and is closing the entire Department of Fisheries and Oceans contaminants program next month.

And that is aside from removing environmental protections from aboriginal lands, firing hundreds of scientist from government departments and putting the kibosh on journalists simply contacting and interviewing a relevant scientist for an article without getting permission from Ottawa first — the way we used to.

Little wonder that (now unemployed) killer whale expert Peter Ross was moved to express that “(i)t is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods to over 300,000 aboriginal people, and marine wildlife.”

In fact, apprehension is an understatement. Fear is more probably what we should be feeling. With the determination to push through tar sands pipelines, the disdain for science and the loss of the unique environmental laboratory that was the Experimental Lakes Area, we are now more than ever at the mercy of contaminants, pollution, climate change — and proudly ignorant politicians.

The Dangerous Prospect of Protesting Palm Oil

24 Feb
Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

Photo: Lian Pin Koh, Creative Commons

What’s worse than a palm oil company destroying acres of rain forest in Asia to plant palm trees for palm oil?  Those same companies doing the same thing in Africa.

And while they may not get away with threatening the life of someone organizing resistance to their bulldozing the forest and forest dwellers in Indonesia, it appears they are doing so in Nigeria.

The Indonesian Peasants Union, or SPI,  brought attention last week to the death threats and police harassment Odey Oyama is dealing with right now. Mr. Oyama, a barrister by profession, looks like a mild-mannered type of guy. He is the director of the Rainforest Resource Development Centre in Calabar, Cross Rivers state. He has charged one of the largest palm oil companies in the world, Singapore-based Wilmar International, with breaking Nigerian law by grabbing 50,000 hectares of land belonging either to a protected forest reserve or to local farmers for their business. And he has charged the local government for letting them do so.

Working to stem environmental havoc in his country for some 20 years now, Mr. Oyama previously tried to stop a cacao plantation in his state, one that would take over more than 5000 square kilometres of virgin rain forest part of which was under community management.

Wilmar is also going to take over dozens of small farms leased for 25 years to small holders in a poverty-alleviation scheme that allowed them to produce and sell palm oil , although not anywhere near the quantities a multi-million dollar multinational can.

Nigeria has enough problems, both environmental and social, without adding land grabbing to the mix. Despite its vast oil wealth, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. It is also one of the most corrupt countries on the Transparency International list, with even presidents slicing large chunks of palm-oil pie for themselves on land that is not theirs.

Nigeria is not the only poor — although I hesitate to write that word in an country that earns billion in petroleum revenue, but it is — nation in Africa to have come to the attention of palm oil magnates.

In Liberia, still recovering after years of brutal warfare characterized by drug-fueled child solders and a gleeful predilection for mutilating people,  palm oil companies are grabbing almost  a million hectares of land whilst violating the human rights of local communities.

And in Cameroon, an American company called Herakles Farms is currently clearing land for a 70,000 hectare palm oil plantation that will sit between and partly within two National Parks. Herakles says it is a champion of sustainability with its biofuel business, and claims that a) much of the forest land is already degraded anyway, and b) the local villagers using the forest for its renewable resources would actually prefer to have the employment instead.

It counters the complaints of various environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace by saying that the backing of local chiefs is proof that they have the communities’ support.

But just how democratic was the decision-making process in those communities? Do some people stand to gain more than others within them when a multinational comes to town?

After all, whether national or at the district level, cash-crunched local governments often like to think that these enormous plantations will bring economic growth, but like any gigantic agri-business, they only seem to improve the livelihoods of their CEOs and shareholders. As Silas Siakor, a campaigner for the Liberian NGO Sustainable Development Institute put it, “Allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies for several decades will push people further into poverty, as local income generating activities are curtailed and peoples’ earning capacities become limited.”

One can only hope that Mr. Oyama does not meet the same fate as Antonio Trejo, another lawyer who took on the biofuel bigwigs. After three years of representing peasant movements fighting land takeovers and palm oil plantations in Bajo Aguan, Honduras, he was gunned down last September.

From Rhinos to Orangutans, Criminal Activity is So Depressing

24 Oct

Photo Credit: Marboed

Whether it’s been about palm oil or rhino horn, recent news items I’ve seen about the dire effects of criminal activity on our planet’s forests and wildlife are truly depressing. From the photo of a Vietnamese woman gleefully grinding rhino horn that she believes will cure her gall stones (honestly, someone there ought to do a television news segment on the chemical make-ups of endangered animal parts and how they don’t cure anything) to the map of Sumatra’s shrinking forests, I’m wondering when if ever criminals will be stopped from helping destroy the natural world.

And there’s the article I saw on organized crime gangs’ increasing destruction of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve and surrounding Selva Maya. Salvadoran drug dealers are slashing and burning tens of thousands of officially protected hectares to establish ranches to launder their narcotics cash, Chinese gangs are plundering the region for rare hardwoods — before moving on to the jaguars, which they’ll kill for body parts — and Mexican cartels are razoring the forest to land their illicit cargo, one three-strip airport alone accounting for the loss of 40,000 hectares of pristine jungle.

It almost makes me want to applaud the folks who simply go out and rob a bank or liquor store (not that I will: As Jockin Arputham (of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, who I write about in my book, Broke But Unbroken) would say, you guys need to get some value change.)

The Sumatra problem was recently highlighted in an NBC news program that focused on the impact of shrinking habitat on orangutans, and an Australian man who has been trying to move them to places where there is still some forest left. The illegally cleared land gets turned into palm oil plantations, already a billion dollar industry in Indonesia, thanks to the fact that we now find palm oil in everything from chocolate to ice cream, as good a reason as any to boycott these products, quite frankly.

There was no word on how these well-armed gangs given a blind eye by local authorities are affecting the forest dwellers in this area. No doubt my friends at the Serikat Petani Indonesia would have something interesting to say about that.

But the article on Guatemala did tell some pretty sad tales about how local forest community groups, given concession rights and financial assistance to protect the forest from these ignorant, money-hungry marauders, are fighting a losing battle in keeping them out. In one case, an ethical community leader was even killed, and the local management project fell apart.

So while it’s hard to use arguments get crooks to stop with the environmental mayhem, it should be possible to find the financial means to do so. Companies using palm oil can and should stop buying the stuff if they can’t triple check its provenance. And if they don’t, we should know who they are and what they’re selling us. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral lending institutions, being arguably useless at encouraging effective development, should at least demand that Vietnam uphold its own laws on sales of endangered animal parts there. And countries like Guatemala that are trying to safeguard their natural resources with nowhere near enough money ought to be given more help.

But, sadly, I think it unlikely that people with power will actually do much to stem the tide of environmental destruction. Here in Canada, we were recently treated to a news story about conservative Member of Parliament Alice Wong enjoying some shark fin soup at a news conference for Asian media in Richmond, B.C. Ms. Wong was apparently supporting local restaurateurs’ opposition to a municipal ban on the so-called delicacy — a ban her host labels as “culturally insensitive.” (As if culture and cultural sensitivities do not evolve — or does he also support a return to foot binding?)

And with more than a third of all shark species threatened with extinction because of finning, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, isn’t this cruel practice ‘environmentally insensitive?’

A New Democrat MP is now tabling a private member’s bill to make it illegal to import of shark fins to Canada, but with the Tories holding a majority in parliament, and their own environmental insensitivity a point of pride for them, I’m afraid it stands little chance of passing. “It’s part of the culture and (the government) has no intention of banning the soup,” Ms. Wong told the Richmond News.

So I guess that means there are two things that couldn’t be more depressing: criminal activity’s destruction of the environment — and Tory politicians.

Selling Land, Stealing Livelihoods

14 Dec

Today the International Land Coalition released a report they and several other organizations joined together to produce on the buying up of arable land in poor nations for immense personal and corporate profit. Think of a country where protests erupt — like Egypt — or where donors send money to help the poverty stricken — almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa — and you will find rural families’ inability to make a living at the root of their poverty. While they own tiny parcels of land that don’t allow them to eat, let alone prosper, either wealthy families or the state itself control extremely large swathes of it.

So the report and its findings make for dire news indeed. In fact, it’s hard to know where to begin. Researchers found purchase or lease deals adding up to 203 million hectares between 2000 and 2010, most of them in Africa. While 78 per cent of those deals they were able to cross-reference went to agriculture, only about a quarter was destined for the cultivation of food. The rest was for revenue-rich bio-fuel production.

Other scary conclusions include the fact the best, most fertile land is usually targeted for lease or purchase; that poor farmers are being dispossessed of both land held by custom and access to water; that rural women are particularly vulnerable; and that extensive areas of natural ecosystems are being felled for bio-fuel, tourism, industrial projects and so on.

“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal,” said ILC Director Madiodio Niasse in a press release from the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Weak governance, corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making, which are key features of the typical environment in which large-scale land acquisitions take place, mean that the poor gain few benefits from these deals but pay high costs.”

I have posted twice already about these ‘new enclosures’ and written about foreign companies coming in to desperately poor nations to make use of their best land. But apparently, national elites – who are often let off the hook for taxes in order to attract investment — are playing a far larger role in land grabbing than previously thought.

What else lies behind this pernicious trend that will only deepen rural poverty in the third world?

It is actually the same political and economic structure that has people protesting from Wall Street to West Africa: the notion that financial elites know what is best for the rest of us. It simply flies in the face of common sense to think we should help the poor of the developing world with meager handouts and let big business convert their land into mega-estates.

But as the IIED’s Lorenzo Cotula (one of the report’s authors) put it, “Part of the problem is … that many policymakers think small-scale farming has no future and that large scale, intensive agriculture is the best way to achieve food security and support national development.”

Personally, I don’t think many policy makers truly believe that. I can’t help but surmise instead that affluent nation governments and the corporations that donate to their legislators think that there are still more ways to squeeze what little they have out of the world’s poorest.

Something to Think about on Earth Day

22 Apr

 When investigative journalist Mark Dowie went to visit the Batwa people of southwest Uganda in 2007, he found them reduced to lives of penury and squalor. For centuries they had lived in such close harmony with the region’s montane forests that wildlife biologists barely noted their presence.

But as that forest became one of the last refuges of the mountain gorilla, the Batwa were accused by no less a conservation icon than the late Dian Fossey of hunting them. While they denied, and indicated who in fact were, poaching the endangered primate, the Ugandan government paid no heed. More than 1700 Batwa were expelled from the Bwindi National Forest and a second park, stripped of their rights and culture. Today a few are allowed into the forest to collect honey and visit the graves of ancestors. But they may do so only when foreign tourists — paying thousands of dollars for the privilege — are not there to observe gorillas.

With seventy per cent of them surviving by begging, one Batwa leader told Dowie, “It is better to die than live like this.”

The tragic tale of the Batwa is just one of the many Dowie relates in Conservation Refugees: The 100-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. From the San Bushmen of Botswana to the Karen villagers of Thailand and the Adivasi of India, the Toronto-born author and co-founder of Mother Jones magazine estimates that millions of indigenous people have been displaced from their lands in the name of environmental protection.

Citing well-known and well-funded associations like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society, he said, “The best way to describe what (they) are doing when the evictions occur is just looking the other way.”

Few Canadians are likely aware that their donations to help save endangered species can end up exacerbating Third World poverty. Yet the social cost of protecting biodiversity is the fruit of a peculiarly Western way of thinking about nature. That philosophy is best summed up in the United States Wilderness Act of 1964, that describes wilderness as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

With this image foremost, critics say, conservation advocates, often referred to as BINGOs (for Big International Non-Government Organizations) are persuading governments to preserve their biological assets as national parks, and helping fund their management. Much of that funding comes from the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility and affluent government agencies such as USAID. Compliant governments then carry out wholesale evictions of anyone living in or near those parks.

“When (conservationists) wave two or three million dollars in front of a poor country government,” said Rebecca Adamson, the Cherokee founder of Fredericksburg, Va.-based First Peoples Worldwide, “they have catalysed the issue of evictions. They have supported it, they have promoted it and they have underwritten it.

If it would have happened en masse,” she added, “there would be an outcry like Darfur. But it happens in dribbles of a couple hundred, a couple thousand, several thousand, so it never makes the news headlines.”

Indigenous people around the world are increasingly voicing their anger at big conservation. At a 2004 conference of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping in Vancouver, which Adamson attended, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that, “the activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands.”

They are also suspicious of the tendency of the BINGOs to accept donations from corporations most think of as by far the greater threat to the environment. Conservation International, for example, maintains a Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. It includes mining companies like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, oil firms like Chevron and Shell, and agro-business behemoths like Monsanto and Cargill.

“Their argument,” said Dowie, “is that bringing these people on board, admittedly allowing them to greenwash themselves, also allows them to have some input into the way they do their business, the way they extract their resources.” Yet this also makes indigenous people distrust their motives, he added, “because they’re fighting both forces at once. If the conservationists are looking aside while they’re being evicted, they’re also in bed with people who are giving them a lot of problems – the loggers, miners and big planters.”

For Dowie, another tragic paradox is the fact that even as more than 10 per cent of the earth’s landmass is officially protected, global biodiversity has continued to decline precipitously. Some countries evict forest dwellers from officially gazetted parks only to let in companies that plant monocultures of valuable trees, eucalyptus for pulp and paper, or – particularly in Southeast Asia — palm oil. For these governments, such plantations still qualify as forest cover.

Meanwhile forest peasants who practice traditional rotation planting, extraction or a combination of both, are vilified as encroachers, their peasant farming methods as slash-and-burn agriculture. “People tend to look at it as a very primitive, backward practice,” said Hein Mallee of the International Development Research Centre, “but researchers in many cases, not always, often show that it is really a complex system of agro-forestry, managing succession forests.” Having encountered forest peasants in Asia who leave fallow areas for as long as 60 years, he said, simply looking at the land when it is under cultivation leads people to “completely misunderstand the whole system.”

In Africa, Maasai pastoralists and their cattle have been and are still being forcibly expelled from the Serengeti plains to protect zebra, gazelles and other wild ungulates.  Last summer, several Maasai villages in Tanzania were burned down to keep inhabitants away from a luxury game reserve. Yet as Dowie points out in Conservation Refugees, recent studies of rangeland ecology show “a positive symbiosis between wild and domestic ungulates grazing together.”

What’s more, eviction can so embitter some indigenous people that they turn against the land and wildlife they once cherished. “When people get evicted, they really just get dumped into the surrounding eco-system,” said Adamson. “So that ecosystem cannot carry the current people who are living there and the new people, and gets depleted. Then they start encroachment, because it’s either that or die. Are you going to feed your kids or are you going to just lie there and die? Because some scientist is running around in a brand new SUV taking samples.”

Adamson also pointed out the faulty thinking behind the rationale of saving one piece of the planet while polluting and destroying another. After all, it is one single planet. And that’s something everyone should think about on Earth Day.